Sloan Scholar Spotlight: Chris Torres

May 24, 2021

Faculty mentors had an important role in Chris Torres' life, taking him from a community college student, to the University of New Mexico, to a third-year chemistry PhD student and Sloan Scholar at the University of Illinois. 

When he was a kid, Chris was fascinated by the invisible elements of the semiconductor chips his stepdad brought home from work, leading him to believe he wanted to become an electrical engineer. But his first chemistry class at a community college in Albuquerque, New Mexico changed that. His chemistry professor was tough but engaging, and chemistry suddenly seemed like an even better way to study what can't be seen by the naked eye. 

That same chemistry professor wrote Chris a recommendation for a one-month summer internship through the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program. Chris got placed with Professor Jose Cerrato at the University of New Mexico (UNM), and even though it was only for a month, Chris impressed his professor and the team with his efforts in data analysis—he even earned a co-authorship for his work! He transferred to UNM to get his BS in chemical engineering, and he continued to work with Professor Cerrato. Chris considers him an "academic father figure," someone who explained what Chris needed to do to excel in college. 

But a BS in chemical engineering only fostered more curiosity in Chris. "I realized after completing my bachelor's degree that there wasn't as much detailed, molecularly oriented studies in the typical undergraduate curriculum. So, to scratch that itch, I went to graduate school."

Chris selected the University of Illinois to pursue a PhD in chemistry, and he works with Professor David Flaherty's research group, investigating how to reduce energy consumption through smarter design of materials and solvent choice. 

"The type of research Professor Flaherty's lab offers looks at fundamental molecular-scale phenomenon," Chris says, which allows him to explore the same curiosity he had as a kid playing with chips. "I'm developing the tools necessary to study molecular phenomenon in a range of fields, including semiconductors if I want." 

Chris' experience working with Professor Flaherty has been key to his professional development, and he advises potential students to find an advisor that matches your work style. Chris, for his part, wanted someone who is hands on and dedicated to his professional development, which made Flaherty—and his lab full of equally dedicated students—a great fit. 

Other Sloan Scholars have also served as a support system, normalizing questions like, "did I make the right choice, do I belong here, and can I cut as a PhD student?" Chris credits having an understanding and like-minded community as key to realizing that everyone asks questions like these. 

Chris' experiences—from community college to his PhD program—have made him more confident and willing to be a role model for other students. His advice to new Sloan Scholars? "Hang in there, keep your head up, lean on each other, and get through it together. The tunnel might be really long, but I assure you that there's light at the end of it."